Paris: Enemies at club level, Spain’s Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have united to build the bedrock upon which a quest to win a third consecutive European Championship is built.
The two-time defending champions face a horrible draw if they are to make it back to Paris on July 10th for the Euro 2016 final.
A blockbuster last-16 clash with old foes Italy on Monday could be followed by meetings with world champions Germany and hosts France after Spain conceded late to lose and let top spot in Group D slip away against Croatia in midweek.
A rematch of the Euro 2012 final brings with it the challenge of breaching Italy’s famed “BBC” defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Real Madrid captain Ramos and Pique — the most outspoken member of Barcelona’s star-studded squad — have often clashed, particularly this season as the old fault lines of Spanish football reappeared.
Pique was repeatedly booed and jeered by Spain fans after poking fun at Real following Barca’s treble success in the 2014/15 season. And he refused to back down, stating: “I always want Madrid to lose.”
Ramos bit back: “Veterans like Pique should avoid such childishness.”
As a proud Catalan, Pique’s commitment to the Spanish national team has also been questioned. As recently as Tuesday he had to fend off ludicrous accusations he had raised his middle finger during the Spanish anthem.
“I am crossing my fingers during the anthem,” Pique posted on Twitter.
“We should stop looking for controversy where there is none and try to win the Euros together.”
Winning the Euros together was exactly what Ramos and Pique did four years ago, when they twice came up against Italy.
After Antonio Di Natale breached the Spain defence in the opening game, La Roja didn’t conceded in the five games that followed, culminating in a 4-0 thrashing of the Azzurri in the final.
– Key to success -Pique has already come to Spain’s rescue at the other end of the field in Euro 2016, scoring a late winner in their 1-0 opening win over the Czech Republic.
Ramos was first to congratulate his central defensive partner, leaping onto Pique’s shoulders with the latter posting the picture on Twitter, adding: “I suppose I don’t need to say anything more… we are a magnificent team!”
Spain hadn’t conceded for 10 competitive games stretching back to October 2014, but the first cracks in their defence of the title appeared with the 2-1 defeat to Croatia in Bordeaux.
Ramos was particularly culpable, error-strewn in defence as well as missing a crucial second-half penalty.
“Analyse, reflect, learn and improve. This is our true path in Euro 2016,” Ramos tweeted.
But that path now sees Spain come up against the widely regarded most solid defensive unit in the competition, despite the fact Ramos and Pique have far more collective and individual honours.
Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli have never won a World Cup, Euros, multiple Champions Leagues or the inclusions in the FIFA team of the year that Spain’s duo boast.
Pique and Ramos’s style — on and off the field — earns more plaudits because it is easier on the eye. Indeed, Pique was even crowned most handsome player at the Euros by dating site Match.com.
By contrast, Italy’s “BBC”, formed into a relentless winning unit by Italian coach Antonio Conte during his glorious three-year reign at Juventus, know how to win ugly.
Chiellini has taken four fractures to his nose — plus a bite from Uruguay’s Luis Suarez — for the Italian cause.
“I am the most aggressive one,” Chiellini explained of his role within the trio to the Guardian.
“I go hunting for my opponents high up the field.”
Whoever stands strongest between Spain’s glamour centre-back couple and Italy’s trio of warriors will go a long way to deciding who emerges victorious in Paris on Monday.